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Baseball’s lack of interpreters for Spanish speakers is a problem

Apr 25, 2014, 11:07 AM EDT

pineda getty Getty Images

There was some confusion on Wednesday night when Michael Pineda spoke to reporters — without an interpreter — regarding the pine tar business and there ended up being some mixed signals sent regarding what Joe Girardi and the Yankees told Pineda about pine tar and when. It seems Pineda did not understand some of the questions at first and initially gave the impression that Giradi had not talked to him when in fact he had. Pineda, after learning of his misunderstanding with the help of an interpreter, corrected the record.

In the wake of all of that, Jorge Castillo has a great article in the Star-Ledger about the lack of interpreters available for Spanish-speaking players in major league baseball. Castillo’s primary source for the story is Carlos Beltran who has a lot of insightful things to say about Spanish speakers in U.S. clubhouses and the difficulty many of them have learning English, responding to questions in press conferences and the like. His comments are definitely worth your time.

Interesting fact from the article: while the Yankees have three dedicated interpreters for their three Japanese players, they have no dedicated interpreters for their Spanish speakers. Instead, they relay on their bullpen catcher or whatever bilingual player happens to be available at the moment. Often no one is available. I find this interesting inasmuch as there are way more Spanish speakers in baseball, so you’d think teams would have someone around for that purpose.

Based on past articles along these lines, I fully expect some of you to say “hey, you’re in the U.S. now, you should learn the language.” I find these sorts of comments hilarious given how utterly lost said commenters would be if dropped down in another country for a little while. And that’s before appreciating the fact that ballplayers here aren’t simply looking for la biblioteca or el aeropuerto. They’re being asked often loaded questions from a press corps that is always looking for gaffes and controversies. It’s difficult enough for native English speakers to navigate that stuff.

I’m also reminded of the crap people flung at Sammy Sosa for using an interpreter during his Congressional testimony back in 2005 regarding PEDs. People mock and scoff at Sosa for doing so, as his English was generally good enough to navigate the ballpark, but such mockery is ridiculous. Talking to a radio guy about loving to hit home runs doesn’t require the same sort of precision answering questions under oath with the risk of a criminal prosecution hanging over your head. In the latter case you had DAMN WELL BETTER say what you mean to say, rending the use of an interpreter not just wise, but essential.  And, as I’ve argued before, doing so likely saved Sosa from a criminal beef. It was brilliant, actually.

Anyway, a very interesting topic. And a great article on it that you should definitely read.

142 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. ud1951 - Apr 25, 2014 at 1:20 PM

    I am never one to defend the Yankees, but having 6 or 8 bilingual players and coaches on the staff might make you less likely to hire an interpreter for the 1 or 2 Spanish speakers that are not bilingual. If you have three Japanese players and none are comfortable in English, you almost have to have a Japanese interpreter.

    And a reporter that can’t tell that the guy he is interviewing comprehends the question he is asking because of a language barrier, that’s on the reporter. And if you cover baseball and teams that have Spanish only speakers, why don’t you employ an interpreter? That would give you a leg up I would think, if you are going through Carlos Beltran to ask Pineda a question, how do you know if you are getting Beltran’s, not Pineda’s take?

    I see the Japanese interpreter as a courtesy to the press–not all teams have Japanese players. With so much Spanish press, so many Spanish speakers in the US and the fact that every team has Spanish speakers, I do not see the need for that courtesy. If you cover baseball and 30% of baseball players speak Spanish, it should be your problem to figure out how to interview them.

  2. cohnjusack - Apr 25, 2014 at 1:22 PM

    In all fairness to MLB, it’s super hard to find a Spanish interpreter. There is a crushing lack of people in the United States who speak both English and Spanish, and effort to find them and associated costs would be simply prohibitive for organizations that spend between $44 and $235 million on player payroll.

    • crackersnap - Apr 25, 2014 at 2:58 PM

      Congratulations, sir. Your delivery was sublime.

    • anxovies - Apr 25, 2014 at 5:32 PM

      Actually, there are around 50 million Hispanics in the US. Assuming that at least half (or many more) speak Spanish and English well enough to interpret questions from a sportswriter gives a fairly large pool of potential interpreters. Remember, we are talking about an interview about sports, not the United Nations or a court proceeding. And that does not include the many non-Hispanic bilinguals. Any city large enough to support a MLB team is going to have a lot of bilingual people, including at least some who would jump at a job interpreting for a sports celebrity. My guess is that the reason that there are not more Spanish interpreters is that most players pick up an adequate command of English very quickly with the help of other players who went through the same process. The teams probably do not appreciate the difference between the casual use of English in the locker room and things said that are going to be recorded or printed. There are potential Spanish interpreters out there and they should be utilized.

      • crackersnap - Apr 25, 2014 at 6:45 PM

        Apparently, the delivery was too sublime for some…

  3. roundballsquarebox24 - Apr 25, 2014 at 1:23 PM

    While I agree that it helps to have other Spanish-speaking players help with translation, this can become problematic, very easily. I don’t know how many times I see a teammate interpreting for a player who can’t speak English, and the interview just goes terrible. Of course, the reporter giving the interview and most fans who see it never realize it. There are some pretty significant differences in the way that people from different countries speak Spanish. While having your bullpen catcher from Venezuela translate for a Dominican guy is helpful; a lot more helpful than having nobody, it is not ideal. Things are lost in translation because of these differences between the Spanish spoken in the different countries. I’ve seen countless interviews where one guy is translating for another and many, many things are interpreted incorrectly, or certain things were left out. It doesn’t help that many of these guys aren’t the most educated in their own language, they speak very, very colloquial, in what many people from their own countries would consider a vulgar, or “ghetto” way. A professional interpreter is ideally well-versed in the language and all of it’s variations, and can put together a competent translation that actually captures what the player wanted to say, fully. I say this being a native of the Dominican Republic who has been seeing this happen for years. At least now-a-days it is a lot better for them than the days of Roberto Clemente and Ozzie Virgil.

    • bleedgreen - Apr 25, 2014 at 2:17 PM

      Exactly. Theres different dialects of Spanish. Just like the UK, Australia and the US all speak English, but different accents and different slang/terminology for things makes it so you understand the words but not necessarily what they mean in context.

    • anxovies - Apr 25, 2014 at 5:41 PM

      Your observation about colloquial Spanish is very true. However, I would think that the differences would get ironed out fairly quickly. There are colloquial differences between how English is spoken in America and in England or Australia. However, it doesn’t take long to pick up on the differences if you move to the country and interact with people.

  4. deathmonkey41 - Apr 25, 2014 at 1:25 PM

    The Phillies should have gotten an interpreter for Charlie Manuel.

    • deathmonkey41 - Apr 25, 2014 at 1:26 PM

      And I meant for them to interpret what Charlie was saying to press- not the other way around.

  5. matthewplotkin - Apr 25, 2014 at 1:47 PM

    The Oakland Athletics have a dedicated translator for Cespedes, and look at their payroll…

  6. jm91rs - Apr 25, 2014 at 2:56 PM

    Just a guess, but I would think the large amount of Bi-Lingual players on many teams would serve as interpreters and teams might not think they need an official interpreter. I’d just train my guys to tell the press they can’t talk until a teammate arrives.

  7. romosexualtendencies - Apr 25, 2014 at 3:04 PM

    Maybe they should learn English……

    • chargrz - Apr 25, 2014 at 3:50 PM

      They can’t afford to pay for help.

  8. shyts7 - Apr 25, 2014 at 4:34 PM

    How about baseball help the people learn a little bit of english so that they can interact with each other on the field and in the locker room. Would probably make things a little easier instead of carrying multiple interpreters.

  9. scyankee64 - Apr 25, 2014 at 4:56 PM

    Let the player hire his own interpreter.

  10. deep64blue - Apr 25, 2014 at 4:59 PM

    Still stunned at how inept multi million $ MLB teams are at putting their players in the best position to succeed. Little things like this would make a huge difference.

  11. clavette - Apr 25, 2014 at 6:04 PM

    god forbid anyone who gets paid millions and millions of dollars should have to learn english the native language that is taught to children in american schools

  12. nomoreseasontix - Apr 25, 2014 at 6:50 PM

    Here’s an idea … Learn English.
    If I were working in another country, I wouldn’t expect them to accommodate me. I’d expect to have to learn the language.

  13. keltictim - Apr 25, 2014 at 7:24 PM

    Just because Congress hasn’t wasted their time on it does not mean English is not the “official” language of the USA. What language are laws written in. English is most definitely the language of this country with, or without a piece of paper saying so.

  14. mikhelb - Apr 25, 2014 at 7:27 PM

    Muy buen artículo Craig, sobre todo tomando en cuenta que muchos de los jugadores hispanos que llegan a ligas menores y subsecuentemente a las mayores dificilmente tienen una educación superior puesto que son firmados a los 16 años, recién terminando su educación secundaria y sin opción de aprender un lenguaje alterno al inglés.

    Now the translation:
    Very good article Craig, specially taking into account that a lot of hispanic players who get to the minorleagues hardly have university studies since most of them are signed at 16 years old just around the time they are finishing secundary education with no chance to learn a secundary language (in a lot of countries there is elementary from grade 1 to 6th, secundary wich is the next three grades and later two of high school).

    The whole “you live in the US learno to speako da english” is downright dumb considering how 99% of US citizens who live in hispanic countries never learn to speak english except for some pretty basic stuff. Imagine if the europeans who colonized ‘murica had chosen to speak the native tongue of the different tribes who were vastly superior in number to colonists, or had to speak spanish in the mexican territories the US annexed (California, Arizona, Nuevo México, Texas) after that forced land buyout. Proffesionists, sure: learno to speako da inglish. But for a country which loves to sparce the whole “land of the free” thing, there should an addendum reading:

    Land of the free… as long as you speak english, enter with a passport unless you are european or defector from a “communist” country, and play baseball the right way.

  15. keltictim - Apr 25, 2014 at 7:30 PM

    Also I really think that an argument could be made that between slang, accepted mistakes, and a few other reasons I’m too tired to attempt to put into words, it could be said our “official” language is “American”, as our dialect has been vastly perverted from the original olde English. Mmmmm olde English, the fuel of my youth.

  16. jikkle49 - Apr 25, 2014 at 7:58 PM

    Throwing it out there but why not during Spring Training the MLB force foreign speaking players to take some lessons in common phrases they need to know for interviews and coaches before they hit the field for practice?

    I don’t want to make it sound like “just learn English” but if it was me and I was in a country where in my job english wasn’t the primary language I would make every effort to learn the language that was the primary language.

    • roundballsquarebox24 - Apr 25, 2014 at 8:42 PM

      They do this. They know phrases like “strike”, “out”, “RBI”, “cut-off man”(well, sometimes!), and things of this nature. They can easily communicate with their co-workers(teammates) and superiors(manager/coaches). This is not the same as fluently expressing whatever thought you want to express to a reporter, or in the case of Sosa, in a U.S court. Learning a language is not so simple that in a few years you can easily express yourself in any type of elaborate fashion.

  17. wouldabeenthere - Apr 25, 2014 at 8:30 PM

    Go ahead, plop me down in a foreign country where I don’t know the language. Then give me millions of $. I’ll find my own interpreter thank you.

  18. futbolhistorian - Apr 25, 2014 at 9:37 PM

    Judging by some of the comments, it is very apparent not everyone understands what it takes to learn a language well enough to conduct media interviews. It’s one thing to learn a language enough to get by in day to day conversation and such, but it takes much more to learn a language well enough to make sure you navigate through difficult media interviews without controversy because of something slight one might have misinterpreted. Learning a language as an adult, even with professional help and tutors, it will take years to get that level of proficiency. So the “learn the language” comments, as it pertains to what this story is about, are definitely misplaced.

  19. nottinghamforest13 - Apr 25, 2014 at 10:37 PM

    Speaking two languages & being an interpretor are two wildly different skillsets.

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